Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive

On show until June 16th at Galerie Max Hetzler, Russian Criminal Tattoos features a display of drawings and photographs taken from the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia book series, produced by the London-based design agency Fuel. The books are a detailed documentation of the drawings made by prison warden Danzig Baldaev between 1948-1986, who meticulously recorded an extensive range of tattoos adorning Russian prisoners at the notorious Kresty prison in Leningrad. Baldaev attained the necessary archiving skills from his father, a trained ethnographer, who’d spent much of his son’s childhood incarcerated as a political prisoner. During his time as a warden Baldaev made over 3000 drawings of inmates’ tattoos accompanied by detailed descriptions, allowing access to a silent and complex criminal code of status symbols and and secret meanings.

Fuel was founded in 1991 by Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, who started the Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive in 2009. The pair now own 739 sheets of drawings made by Baldaev and the exclusive rights to photographs taken by Baldaev’s fellow prison worker Sergei Vasiliev, whose work also features heavily in the books. We caught up with Damon to ask him more about the project.

How did you find out about the collection and what made you want to archive it?

We’ve been working with the Russian Criminal Tattoo material for about ten years now. When we came to put together the second volume of the book series I went to St Petersburg to select previously unpublished drawings from Danzig Baldaev’s collection. There were hundreds of sheets, some containing many drawings, which his widow had been looking after since his death in 2005. She kept them in bin bags in their tiny flat, where they were slowly decaying. In 2009 she asked us if we wanted to buy them from her, and we thought this would be a great opportunity to show his work to a wider audience.

Do you think the tattoos give a strong sense of sociopolitical changes over the time that they were documented?

Without a doubt. The tattoos mirror the country’s society and politics over this period, only through the prism of the Russian criminal. Often the tattoos depict the leaders and originators of communism (Marx, Engels, Stalin for example), but also the meaning of these images are twisted by the criminals. An image of Lenin has the word ‘VOR’ tattooed underneath, an acronym meaning ‘Leader of the Bolshevik Revolution’ but the word also means ‘Thief’. Other tattoos feature more recent politicians: Yeltsin is shown as a drunk commenting on Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign of the 1980s: ‘I have always grasped and still grasp my glass with firm and steady hands! I’m not a runt like Mishka Gorbachev, who only drinks ryazhenka’ (a yoghurt-like product). Elsewhere Brezhnev receives fellatio: ‘A certain actress for a laugh sucked the General Secretary’s cock off. Look how brilliant he is, look how sexy he is!’ Other tattoos comment on the practices of Russians against those of different ethnic backgrounds: ‘Non-Russians can’t live in a Russian Old Believers village for they will be humiliated, sheeps’ legs will be broken, cows’ udders will be cut, pigs’ eyes pulled out, and their houses will be burnt just like the houses of other Russians whom they consider impure’. 

What was it like to meeting Baldaev’s widow? 

It’s safe to say she was wary initially. At the very first meeting there was a gun on the table and one of her friends sat in as backup. However the gun wasn’t used, and we’ve built a great relationship with her over the years. I think she understands how much we respect her husband’s work, and appreciates our efforts to bring it to a wider audience. She receives a royalty on every book sale, which has been a great help to her since Danzig died. 

What was the most intriguing discovery related to Baldaev while the books were being prepared?

We were intrigued to find Baldaev’s drawings of scenes from the Gulag. He had been reported to the KGB for making his drawings of prisoners’ tattoos, but they had recognised the value in his work, realising the importance of being able to establish facts about convicts by reading the images on their bodies. He was allowed to travel the length of the country, visiting different prisons and camps to record the tattoos he came across. However, he also documented the everyday life of the camps, he made a series of drawings that exposed the shocking way inmates were treated, both by the authorities and their criminal counterparts. Telling the story of the Gulag from it’s inception, they were a unique and fascinating insight into this period of Russian history. Had they been discovered at the time of their making, these drawings would surely have landed him in the hellish institutions he was depicting. We decided to publish the drawings as a collection in the book ‘Drawings from the Gulag’. The reaction to them by many Russian friends was one of disbelief, that his images exaggerated reality. Our knowledge of Gulag literature told us that this wasn’t the case, and so we complied footnotes to his images from existing, respected Gulag memoirs and academic texts to corroborate the astonishing scenes he depicted.

Do you know if any of the inmates are aware of or own the books?

No, but it is unlikely. Unfortunately we can assume that the majority of the inmates featured are dead. The photographs were taken in the late 1980s, early 1990s, when the average lifespan for a Russian male was approximately 63 years old. However, for anyone who had been in prison this would have been considerably less: conditions inside are harsh, overcrowding is considerable, and diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV were (and still are) rife. If you add to this the potential for drug use, combined with the average criminal’s lifestyle, then the chances of one of these inmates sitting down to a good book (on any subject) is slim.

Do you have a favourite tattoo from the collection?

It’s impossible to pick one. There are 120 sheets of drawings in the current show, and these are our favourites (from the 739 sheets in the collection) at the moment. If I had to narrow it to a particular frame, I’d go for the erotic one, depicting sexual scenes. About half these tattoos are copied from the bodies of prostitutes, the other half are tattoos that have been forcibly applied to inmates who have lost at cards. These ‘erotic’ tattoos lower the inmates’ status making them part of the ‘downcast’, they would not be allowed to mix with criminals and were even made to eat using their own cutlery (drilled with holes) so the higher ranking inmates would not be ‘contaminated’ by them. So the meaning of the images is both exactly what you would expect (in relation to prostitution), and the complete opposite (forcibly applied ‘lowering’ tattoos). This is the essential thing about Russian criminal tattoos – that the meaning of the image has developed beyond our surface understanding into something that can only be understood by those who have the knowledge to decipher them.

Would you consider releasing further books depicting alternative criminal tattoos cultures

Other cultures of criminal tattoo do exist, but for us they are not as interesting as the Russian criminal tattoo. We’ve come across the tattoos of white power organisations in American prisons, and the tattoos of Mexican and South African gangs, but none of these cultures are as defined and seemingly diverse as the Russian version. History, language, politics, status, even sexual preferences: only the Russian criminal tattoo combines all these elements in such an effective way, and in doing so transforms these individuals into pure expressions of themselves. These tattoos mean everything to their owners: because they could literally be a matter of life and death, their connotations were amplified.

How did the exhibition at Max Hetzler Gallery come about? 

I was introduced to Max in Venice by Rebecca Warren. We got talking about the tattoo books, of which he is a fan. I mentioned that we were looking for a place to exhibit the original drawings, and that if he had any ideas for a venue in Berlin we would love to put the exhibition on there. A few months later he said he couldn’t think of anywhere other than his own gallery. Of course we were flattered to be able to show this work in such a well-respected gallery – it is an exceptional space, and Max and his team are wonderful to work with. 

Do you yourselves have any tattoos?

No. For me the Russian criminal tattoo is the ultimate tattoo. After being immersed in these images and their meanings for so long any appetite I had for a tattoo of my own has evaporated…